U.S., Cuba to normalize relations
Washington — After a half-century of Cold War acrimony, the United States and Cuba moved on Wednesday to restore diplomatic relations — a historic shift that could revitalize the flow of money and people across the narrow waters that separate the two nations.
President Barack Obama's dramatic announcement in Washington — seconded by Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana — was accompanied by a quiet exchange of imprisoned spies and the celebratory release of American Alan Gross, a government contract worker who had been held in Cuba for five years.
The shift in U.S.-Cuba policy was the culmination of 18 months of secret talks between the longtime foes that included a series of meetings in Canada and the personal involvement of Pope Francis at the Vatican. It also marked an extraordinary undertaking by Obama without Congress' authorization as he charts the waning years of his presidency.
"These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked," Obama declared at the White House. "It's time for a new approach."
In Metro Detroit, Cuban Americans had mixed reactions to the news.
Hector Gutierrez said he wished his father, who left Cuba in the 1950s, was still alive to witness the day.
"He would have been so excited," said Gutierrez of Westland. "I'm excited."
But Eduardo Castillo said he felt betrayed by the news. Castillo, whose parents left Cuba in 1960, said Obama had hampered a longtime drive by exiles to bring independence to the island.
"What does this accomplish?" asked Castillo of Detroit. "What do we gain?"
Obama spoke as Castro was addressing his nation in Havana, where church bells rang and school teachers paused lessons to mark the news. Castro said that while the U.S. and Cuba remain at odds on many matters, "we should learn the art of living together in a civilized manner in spite of our differences."
Obama's plans for remaking U.S. relations with Cuba are sweeping: He aims to expand economic ties, open an embassy in Havana, send high-ranking U.S. officials including Secretary of State John Kerry to visit, and review Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.
The U.S. also is easing restrictions on travel to Cuba, including for family visits, official government business and educational activities. But tourist travel remains banned.
Obama and Castro spoke by telephone Tuesday for nearly an hour, the first presidential-level call between their nations' leaders since the 1959 Cuban revolution and the approval of a U.S. economic embargo on the communist island that sits just 90 miles off coast of Florida. The two men are also expected to meet at a regional summit in Panama next spring.
Despite Obama's declaration, the Cuba embargo was passed by Congress, and only lawmakers can revoke it. That appears unlikely to happen soon given the largely negative response to Obama's actions from Republicans who will take full control of Capitol Hill in January.
"Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom — and not one second sooner," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "There is no 'new course' here, only another in a long line of mindless concessions to a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who Tuesday announced he has decided to "actively explore" a presidential run, also voiced his opposition of Obama's move.
"I don't think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship," Bush said at an event in Florida on Wednesday morning, according to USA Today.
Obama did not rule out traveling to Cuba before his presidency ends, telling ABC News: "I don't have any current plans to visit Cuba, but let's see how things evolve."
The response from around the world was far more welcoming, particularly in Latin America, where the U.S. policy toward Cuba has been despised.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro called Obama's action "a gesture that was courageous and historically necessary."
The Vatican said Pope Francis "welcomed the historic decision taken by the governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history."
The details of the prisoner releases and policy changes were largely finalized during a meeting at the Vatican last fall.
In Cuba, a sense of euphoria spread through Havana as people gathered around televisions to watch the Obama and Castro announcements.
Half a century ago, the U.S. recognized Fidel Castro's new government soon after his rebels took power from dictator Fulgencio Batista. But before long things began to sour as Cuba deepened its relationship with the Soviet Union.
In 1961 the U.S. broke diplomatic relations, and then came the failed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion meant to topple Castro. A year later a U.S. blockade forced removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba in a standoff that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Detroit News Staff Writer
Francis X. Donnelly contributed.
Key dates in U.S. relations with Cuba
Key events in U.S.-Cuba relations:
— Jan. 1, 1959: Fidel Castro's rebels take power as dictator Fulgencio Batista flees Cuba. The United States soon recognizes the new government.
— June 1960: Relations begin to sour as Castro veers left. Cuba nationalizes U.S.-owned oil refineries after they refuse to process Soviet oil. Nearly all other U.S. businesses are expropriated by October.
— October 1960: Start of U.S. embargo: Washington bans exports to Cuba, other than food and medicine.
— Jan. 3, 1961: U.S. breaks relations with Cuba and closes embassy.
— April 16, 1961: Castro declares Cuba a socialist state.
— April 17, 1961: U.S.-trained Cuban exiles stage the failed Bay of Pigs invasion aimed at toppling Castro. U.S. intelligence agencies also stage repeated attempts over the years to kill the Cuban leader.
— Feb, 7, 1962: President John F. Kennedy expands embargo, banning almost all Cuban imports.
— October 1962: U.S. blockade forces removal of Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba. U.S. President John F. Kennedy agrees privately not to invade Cuba.
— April 1980: Mariel boatlift: Cuba says anyone can leave; some 125,000 Cubans flee, causing a refugee crisis for the United States.
— December 1991: Collapse of Soviet Union devastates Cuban economy.
— August 1994: Castro declares he will not stop Cubans trying to leave; some 40,000 take to sea heading for United States.
— Sept. 12, 1998: Five Cuban spies arrested in the United States. They are later convicted. Cuba mounts an international campaign to free them, saying they were defending island against U.S.-based terror attempts.
— July 31, 2006: Fidel Castro announces has had operation, temporarily cedes power to brother Raul. Fidel resigns as president two years.
— Dec. 3, 2009: USAID contractor Alan Gross arrested in Havana, stifling incipient efforts to improve U.S.-Cuba ties under President Barack Obama.
— Dec. 17, 2014: Gross freed and remaining members of Cuban Five spy ring freed as part of prisoner exchange.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.